Joint BCC / Legislative Delegation Workshop

This morning (1/28), the Palm Beach County Commission and staff met with 9 of the 18 members of the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation. Present were Senators Lizbeth Benacquisto (R, FS27) and Maria Sachs (D, FS30), Representative (and delegation chair) Joseph Abruzzo (D, FH85), Steve Perman (D, FH78), Pat Rooney (R, FH83), Lori Berman (D, FH86), Mark Pafford (D, FH88), Jeff Clemens (D, FH89), and Irv Slosberg (D, FH90).

After opening remarks from Chairman Abruzzo and Commission Chair Karen Marcus, PBSC President Dennis Gallon welcomed the groups to his facility, and Legislative Affairs Director Todd Bonlarron began the agenda with a recap of the successful 2010 legislative session and introduced two Powerpoint presentations of particular interest.

In the first, newly appointed Budget Director John Wilson gave a crisp overview of sources of revenue and the property tax supported appropriations. Some of the charts used, as in the past, highlighted the size of the Sheriff’s budget compared to the county departments, and their divergence. PBSO growth in spending has far exceeded county department ad-valorem requirements for the last 3-4 years, and now is almost 70% higher ($394M vs $233M in the 2011 budget).

Another chart showed the trend versus the “TABOR” line, which they show as 28.3% above 2006 levels. (TABOR stands for “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” and refers to a Colorado implementation that constrained the rate of spending growth to population and inflation.) By their measure, PBSO is up 67% over 2003 while county staff has only increased 11%.

(TAB NOTE: Although we do not dispute these numbers, they are a bit misleading and not totally fair to the Sheriff. Since 2003, PBSO has been absorbing new service areas, including the Glades cities, Royal Palm Beach, and Lake Worth. Population growth in the county was about 6%, but the PBSO service area grew by 19% from 2003-2009, requiring a different TABOR baseline. Furthermore, if the 2012 budget comes in with unchanged 4.75 millage, by some measures the county will have converged on the TABOR trend with the Sheriff included. We will be doing an article about this in the near future.)

Regarding TABOR, there was some indication that similar measurements may be discussed in the legislative session. Todd Bonlarron laid down a marker for the county that city and county governments should be exempt from such measurements. Commissioner Marcus pointed out that if we had TABOR here, “we never would have been able to do Scripps.” Given the debt incurred and likely losses surrounding Mecca Farm, maybe that would have been a good thing.

Next up was Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman who presented a pension overview. Brad is the county’s acknowledged expert on the subject with a background in HR, and gave an excellent summary of the types of pensions, organization and statistics about FRS, and its current status. Hitting on the key aspects of the Defined Benefit plans which the overwhelming majority of employees select, he pointed out the accrual factors (1.6% /year for most, 3.0% for “special risk” classes), and the guaranteed 3% COLA for retirees, then showed an example of a 30 year employee at the “average AFC” of $42K/year receiving a modest retirement income of $19K. While this may be average state-wide, our calculations show higher averages in this county, but still not too excessive. It is the “special risk” categories that are excessive. You can infer this by noting that the pension contribution made for regular employees is mandated at 10.77%, while for special risk it is 23.25%). It was noted by Representative Perman that elected officials also get the same 3%/year as special risk classes. Seems like that is excessive too.

Leading with a comparison to other states’s plans (one of only 5 with no employee contribution, lower accrual but longer AFC calculation, only 40% index COLA), Brad laid out the county recommendations and things to avoid as FRS reform is discussed in Tallahassee. This can be found in depth elsewhere (CLICK HERE) and TAB supports the FRS recommendations for the most part.

Moving along, former Senator Dave Aronberg, now working for the Attorney General, gave an overview of steps being taken to curb the growth of pain clinics, Todd touched briefly on the other items in the county legislative agenda, and the senators and representatives talked about the bills with which they are personally engaged.

It should be noted that two of the areas of particular interest to TAB – namely the “Fire/Rescue Sales Tax Fix” and changes to the “PBSO career service protection act”, were not mentioned at all. It is our understanding that neither area will be pursued in this session. The first would be necessary to enable a sales tax ballot item in 2012 and could presumably be introduced later, so we will continue to scan for that one. The second is a disappointment, as no substantive changes to the PBSO contracts can be made without it, even during collective bargaining sessions for the next contract. We have been told by multiple sources that since it is a local bill requiring unanimous agreement in the delegation, the politics are not there to challenge the unions.

Near the end, Commissioner Aaronson asked that someone in the delegation take on the task to make “31 bullet magazines” illegal. Although there were no takers, Senator Sachs has already introduced a bill that would limit gun rights, and both Commissioners Taylor and Vana want to see guns restricted within the county, particularly in parks and public buildings. If any of you reading this are passionate about second amendment issues, it is time to pay attention.

It should be noted that the delegation is split 10 Democrats to 7 Republicans, as befits the county registration ratios, but the split of the attendees was 7:2 among the state level folks and 5:1 for the commissioners. This is not to imply that there is any partisan clash among the delegation (there doesn’t appear to be), but it makes one wonder how the delegation will succeed in the overwhelmingly Republican legislature.

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